Leaders striving to become more authentic are often faced with a thorny challenge: if they operate outside their natural state in day-to-day situations, are they being “fake”? For instance, if a naturally introverted leader pushes himself to be interactive and open with his team members, does that mean that he’s selling out, faking it, and sacrificing a basic piece of himself?
The art of authentic leadership is not all or nothing. Instead of “I am what I am,” it’s more like “I am what I choose.” Or better yet “I am what I am AND I am what I choose.” Our thinking about human authenticity is too often limited to black and white either, or thinking that is better suited to analyzing the authenticity of a purse, painting, or watch. Let’s look at an example.
Marcus, one of my most talented and intellectually voracious clients, gave me a modern “I am what I am” speech a while back. He had recently moved into a new position and asked me to do a check-in with his team regarding overall team dynamics. He had been in the new position for about six months, and the vast majority of his team remarked that they did not feel that they knew Marcus any better than they did when he showed up.
This was surprising to me, as Marcus’s team in his former position had described him as the most caring manager they’d ever had. Also, while his new team delivered exceptional business results, they reported morale was only “so-so.” That was noteworthy, as usually people feel more positive when they’re winning. If morale was only “so-so” when the team delivered excellent results, how would the team weather a storm in which the business performance was not so good?
I brought up this finding with Marcus and he said, “You know, Karissa, I have been trying to step a bit more out of the detail.” As we continued our discussion he enthusiastically explained that ever since reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Marcus had come to believe that his natural introversion was a gift, “and maybe I’ve been faking it all these years in my interactions with people.”
At such moments, my “I am what I am” first thought is “Are you crazy?”
I had read Cain’s excellent book as well, but Marcus’s interpretation of the book did not take into account the specifics of the leadership challenge in front of him, nor his deeply held values and goals.
I chose to take a very pregnant pause and look Marcus in the eye with my glasses on my nose. Sensing something was up, he started backtracking and asking a whole bunch of specific questions about the data.
I eventually asked Marcus how shutting his door more often (not necessarily a bad thing, but out of step with this particular organization) and other true-to-his-introversion behaviors jibed with the guy whose last team experienced him as the most caring manager they had ever had. “Did you fake caring about your team, too?”
That one got a strong reaction! “Of course not; I did not fake caring,” he said adamantly. Do you not care for this team? Do you not like them? In one conversation we moved Marcus from “I am what I am” to “I am what I choose.”
Let’s step back from Marcus’s story for a moment and think about it. His natural state was to be introverted, but in his former position he had chosen to push himself to be more open and inviting to his team. After reading Quiet, Marcus interpreted that openness as though he was sacrificing something (a sellout) and not being his true self.
Marcus isn’t alone. All of us can fall into false dichotomies such as this, e.g., we can either conform to the demands of a situation or be ourselves.
Authentic leadership requires you to think differently and step out of that false dichotomy. I have worked with many people over the years who see themselves as a sellout. They feel like they are just selling clothes, toilet paper, or yogurt. Where’s the meaning in that?
When I begin to probe, I discover that many of them are actually doing great things right where they are. They enjoy the process of figuring out a market, and that is an authentic expression of who they are. Or they have found a way to exploit a new opportunity in an established business, which creates whole new divisions of the company. Maybe they haven’t changed the world in the way they imagined in their youth, but they are making a positive impact in various ways. Dichotomous thinking is a trap that can hinder our effectiveness and our well-being.
Over several conversations, Marcus realized that doing something that did not come naturally to him was not necessarily inauthentic if he chose the behavior based on one of his core values—and one of his core values was caring about others.
Think about your own values, and how you can exhibit them even when operating outside your comfort zone. Those less-comfortable behavioral choices that come from deeply held values will actually help you become more authentic over time.
Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction. She is the author of The Art of Authenticity: Tools To Become An Authentic Leader And Your Best Self (Wiley). This article is an edited excerpt from the book. For more information visit www.KarissaThacker.com.